A week ago, thanks to Miles Irving, I coerced me into putting a bunch of elderflower in my mouth..
.. last weekend Helene Darroze stuffed me with many pretty flowers.
I did not go to HD’s 2-starred restaurant but her cosy offshoot Espelette at the Connaught Hotel for a late afternoon tea. Not my first time (and it wouldn’t be my last despite the flowers). I love its relaxed, minimalist setting. Very conservatory-like. Bright and airy. Beautiful chandelier of fresh flowers. Lots of interesting Mayfair characters dodging on Mount Street and on their way to Scott’s.
A little bit about tea at the Connaught. I don’t know whether it was because of the French chef manhandling the kitchen or what. The exuberant tea feast there seems to have slipped from The UK’s Tea Guild Award, of which the winner of this year is Claridge’s. For me and my other bib, the Connaught tea is always a stunner. The tea menu features a lot of infusion – Paris blend, Pomegranate, and our most favourite the “spooky” Lapsang Souchong. Distinctly smoky and to brew as dark as an XO beef stock. I am caffeine intolerant but I’d rather die than not have a sip.
The nibbles, like the tea list, are not all the way English but with many delightful French twists. Say, imported preserve by Christine Ferber, the Queen of Jam in France!! As you may expect, tea at Espelette does not come cheap. You can only go for a set with or without Champagne of your choice. Sans alcohol, it is £35 per head. Unlimited refill but I never venture as far as asking for takeaway. The trick to make this worth the money is that you fast all day, go for the tea and eat to include your supper.
And of all the weekends I had to stumble into Helene Darroze’s special weeks of Chelsea Flower Show-inspired afternoon tea… (and if I may add, it is always the British annual event I couldn’t give a d**m about!)
Many sandwiches of flowery inspirations. Club Sandwich with Salted Cod, Brandade, Chorizo, Wild Garlic Flower; Smoked Salmon, Lemon Cream, Fennel Flower; Brioche of Duck Foie Gras with Rhubarb Chutney, Elderflower; Foccaccia of Babaganoush, Spring Veg, Borage Flower. All marvellous. The bread was top-notch. The flower not only add scent but also flavours. My heart drummed when I bit into the babaganoush with the rather cleansing borage. The foie gras was the table’s favourite.
The cakes (also keeping closely with the flower theme) by the French lady were to die for…
Loved the triangle sponge sandwich of pistachio with peach and jasmine ganache. A burst of o-so-light cream from the blackcurrant and violet choux pastry. All great (but too filling). Service could have been more attentive as I had to wave for the table to be cleared.
And to make myself one step closer to diabetes there came the scones – baked to order – plain and apricotted. Light and flaky. Not necessarily better than scones from Claridge’s or Brown’s Hotel. It was the jam by Ferber that set the Connaught apart. There was not just one kind, two, three, four, but a jam menu featuring 10+ kinds to choose from. We went for Pineapple Vanilla, Raspberry and Quince. Paper thin ribbons of pineapple in vanilla light syrup – it was the best thing that happened to my life recently. Period.
More horrific plates of calories followed – Rose and Raspberry Cake + Chocolate Cake. I couldn’t bring myself to look at them, let alone taking a picture.
Threw my napkin.. gave up all manners.. shouted for a takeaway box..
They actually gave me two! Plastic ones. As glamourous as one would get from a Chinatown eatery. Surely the staff was not often asked for takeaway boxes. I didn’t mind and to restore our decency I got two jars of Christine Ferber to go as well. £10 each.. worth my pennies. They are.
Should you or should you not pay £35 for this? Go for it if you either have the stomach of an elephant or the sweet teeth of 10 million ants…or both. This is, after all, the agreed price range of 5* hotel afternoon tea. Darroze soars above the others in her experimentation with flavours. After the Chelsea Flower theme, the sandwiches will be deflowered but still deliciously unconventional. Smoked salmon with wasabi cream, so to speak. The pastries are always too good to be true. A sort of French magic (as you know I suffer from Francophilia). BUT if you take a personal dislike of all things French, I’d recommend Claridge’s or Brown’s. They champion the English tradition and you’ll get your slice of Vicky Sponge and Dundee Cake.
Enough sugary torture for me..
My head rating says, “7 out of 10″.
My heart rating says, “9 out of 10″.
The Connaught Hotel
Tel. 020 3147 7100